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SciMoms Chats: Pfizer closes neuroscience division

SciMoms chats are a series of articles based on our everyday conversations. Today, the SciMoms discussed the continuing trend of pharmaceutical companies closing their neuroscience divisions. Alison is a neuroscientist who studies the role of epigenetics in Parkinson’s disease. Layla is a molecular geneticist who works in the biotech sector. The original conversation has been edited for clarity.

Jenny: Hey, Alison, you might have some input on this tweet.

Alison: Oh definitely! There are a few things going on here. First, this is not an isolated incident. Second, there’s the different roles of academia/research institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Third, there’s the issue of product pipelines. Finally, there is the huge topic of how pharmaceutical companies pick which targets to go after.

So first, this is the latest in a trend that’s been going on for a while. There’s been much discussion amongst neuroscientists about this. I’m not sure how far the news has gotten out into the general public. Novartis, GlazoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca closed neuroscience research centers in 2011 (Novartis to shut brain research facility). Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi and others have also decreased their neuroscience portfolios. Some companies have shifted these resources into other fields. For example, there is a renewed focus on genetics of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to identify new drug targets.

Second, this highlights the difference in goals and roles between publicly funded research and for-profit research. Companies do some basic research to identify and validate targets. But basic research is not a profitable enterprise, nor what the private sector is designed to handle. Basic research generally falls under the purview of academia and other publicly funded research institutions. Pharmaceutical companies are not in the business of basic research; they are in the business of product development. A friend (and SciDad!) who is also a neuroscience professor wrote a post on his personal page that explains this.

For-profit research is only really good at turning the cogs necessary for production. That means hiring/managing an effective workforce, optimizing the product, streamlining production, storing/distributing products, and marketing. For-profit entities often do not always produce good basic discoveries because the ultimate goal is profit, not finding the right answer to the problem.

Academic science is not Shangri-la. It is in the business of seeking evidence that reveals underlying truths. The USA has been very wise and forward-thinking, historically, in purposefully keeping “basic” science insulated from commercial pressures as much as possible.

Government sponsorship of basic science is good economics. By carefully and methodically pouring money into the process of discovery we (US citizens via our government) plant seeds for our future economy. A huge part of our economy is our own health. If we want to be ahead, health-wise and economy-wise, we would be smart to continue (if not accelerate) investment into this part of our economy. By “investment” I mean careful sustenance/expansion of our basic science engine by all of us, not some small, connected group of investors hoping to hit it big.

Pfizer gave up because they decided the promise of a (profitable) cure wasn’t worth it. I am sad because there was a lot of decent science being done to find therapeutics in their research groups. I think it would be a missed opportunity if all the bright people working to find a profitable cure simply moved on to the next “big pharma” group (if they are even hiring). It would be a much better choice to invest in those people and hire them to study the basic science underlying these diseases. The day that basic scientists finally figure out the core processes underlying these diseases there will be lots of companies and investors that will profit, and millions of lives improved. If we focus on that vision, that goal, that prize, we will get there.

I think it’s disappointing that they closed, because it’s a sign that we don’t have a lot of new options on the immediate horizon. That said, there are small biotech firms doing a lot of research and development. This doesn’t necessarily mean that pharma is getting out of the neuroscience therapeutics business. These are huge markets and it would be stupid for them to do so. But they are companies and they need a way to tap into that and get a return on their investment. Some companies are investing in early stages of R&D at research institutions instead of maintaining their own infrastructure. But even with this, without new targets coming out of basic research, there’s little that pharma can do.

Layla: Exactly, it’s possible that their product pipeline just ran out. If they’ve been working on finding a drug for X number of years, have been down multiple avenues, then it’s possible that there’s no path to go down until there’s a breakthrough. If there are no new targets coming out from basic research then there’s no reason to think that pharma, even with all its resources, would fare very differently.

It’s worth pointing out that several articles tied the news of Pfizer closing their program to the Trump tax cuts (Pfizer, pocketing a big tax cut from Trump, will end investment in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research).If this is a purely business decision, the decision to ax a research division would have been months in the making. Even though they happened at the same time, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the two are related.

Alison: The final piece of this is a bit tangential but gets at why it has been so difficult to develop effect drugs for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This relates to the role of basic research in identifying drug targets and how pharmaceutical companies pick which targets to go after.

We need basic and translational science to identify targets and companies to bring products to market. There is overlap in their roles in between for target validation and preclinical testing. My friend’s post mentioned the importance of basic research for understanding the underlying processes of disease. Without this understanding, pharmaceutical companies may not be choosing the best targets.

I, and many (most?) others in these fields, think that until we can identify Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s earlier, we won’t find truly effective treatments. In fact, my department was discussing this very issue over dinner with a seminar speaker this week.

These are progressive diseases. If we are only diagnosing people based on symptoms that show up late in the disease process, we may be too late to treat them. Many people also think some of the drugs we have will help if we use it in patients earlier in the disease process, instead of only treating people who have severe neurodegeneration and no neurons left to save.

So there is a huge push for research into early detection of these diseases. This would help us treat people earlier with existing drugs. It would also help us understand the changes that occur in the brain long before we see the recognizable clinical symptoms of the disease and give us potential new drug targets. But all of this requires more and more detailed inquiry into the underlying processes of disease. And this is where basic science excels, rather than pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately, funding is limited, so we aren’t funding enough of the type of work we need to fund. But, I am excited about the focus in the field on early detection and some of the new techniques to help us uncover those underlying core processes.